“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” — The Declaration of Independence
What happens to those who live with mental illness in terms of upholding that unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness? What happens when the government turns a blind eye and continues to pass the buck onto another sanction? Not my problem, too expensive to fix, not enough resources — we have heard every excuse as to why we have yet to resolve the human condition in a peaceful manner. Anxiously awaiting a time when justice is no longer “blind” and available for purchase to the highest bidder; what chance does anyone have in truly pursuing happiness?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Serious mental illness cost America $193.2 billon in lost earnings per year.” The top two largest budgets items listed on the U.S. Debt time clock are Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. Recent news reports are stating both programs are doomed to face insolvency by 2034. In other words, there will be no funds to pay out any benefits to anyone. How can we fix it? Band-Aid fixes such as raising the age, raising the cap and adding additional qualifiers are not a well-liked resolve amongst Americans.
According to blogger Chris with disability-benefits-help.org, “Out of those millions of applications received by the Social Security Administration, only  percent are approved at the initial level of the disability claim process.” That means that 70 percent of all initial claims are denied! As a person who battles post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder, I can say from personal experience these denial letters only cause more damage to the already struggling applicants. USA Today writer Mark Johnson wrote in December that “in fiscal year 2016, 8,699 Americans died on the disability insurance waiting list. That number rose to 10,002 in 2017.” Which begs to ask the question, will I be just another wait list tragedy?
I nearly killed myself on multiple occasions, because like most suicidal Americans, I felt the world would be better off and that no one really cared anyway. Life would go on, my kids would be fine and no one would even notice I was gone. On good days I know this is far from the case. This process of applying for aid leaves many like myself in desperation, frustration, anxiety and despair that our voices go unheard, because our illness is invisible. This can sometimes result in acts of self-harm, hospitalizations/forced mental health holds (a.k.a a 51/50) and unfortunately suicide.
I can recall without hesitation both times I was denied last year. Frantic calls to the suicide prevention hotline. Panicked tears soaking my skin as if I had been out in a terrible storm. Hospital visits and psychiatric holds had me feeling imprisoned both physically and mentally. Feelings, thoughts, voices of memories from my aggressor tormenting my already delicate mental state repeating… protesting my freedom. “No one will ever believe you. I will always win. No one wants to hear your problems. Pull your tits up and get over it!”
My first 51/50 that I ever experienced; I was taken in handcuffs by the police from my residence. I was treated as if I were a criminal. Walked out, hands cuffed behind my back and shamefully escorted through my community complex to the back of a squad car. The whole-time police officers repeating, “You are not under arrest; this is just for your own safety.” Do my neighbors know that? It certainly felt like I was being arrested! I most certainly didn’t feel like I was being kept safe. It felt more like this was to keep everyone else safe from me.
My next encounter was no better. Although the second time I was taken in an ambulance from my therapist office. The restraints were an upgrade from the handcuffs and at least I had a human being looking over me. It was much more comfortable and less degrading to be in an ambulance rather than in the back of a police car.
However, the locked mental health ward I was taken to seemed like a cruel punishment rather than a place for me to feel safe and heal from my mental anguish. My intake felt as if I was being processed for a crime I never committed. They checked my hair twice for lice. Stripped me of all my belongings right down to my necklace. I was patted down, told to show my naked body to a nurse to “check for scars and bruises,” and then handed two hospital gowns to wear during the course of my stay.
The room itself had 15 “beds,” no privacy and a public phone mounted to the back of the room. Hospital beds were more comfortable than the hard plastic behavioral furniture I attempted to sleep on. There was no mattress, a thin twin sized cover sheet, a plastic pillow and two thin sheets to use as blankets. Alongside the bottoms of every “bed” dangled four metal hardness clips just in case the unruly patient, oops, I meant uncontrolled symptoms, required the patient be strapped down. Is this really the best our government can do to provide a “safe” environment that fosters “the pursuit of Happiness”? We need Congress and our government to step up and resolve these issues at its core. The mental health of the nation deserves more.
I am still waiting for the third time now to hear from the Social Security Administration about my application. After four different psychiatrists (simultaneously), multiple therapists, crisis counselors and even the social security workers at the main office who conducted my interview say, “There should be no reason why you would be denied.” Yet here we are, denied twice to receive disability benefits. Hopefully this third time is a charm and I am able to receive the aide I so desperately need. In speaking with my mental health care doctors, they are baffled why I was ever denied in the first place. Indicating on my medical records that my condition is “severe,” has had “multiple suicide attempts” and “hospitalizations”… I hope you get the picture. I don’t think the burden of proof should fall on the applicant, especially those who struggle with mental illness. I think it is the responsibility of the institution (i.e. our government). In recent interviews with my medical health care professionals, they all had the same response when it came to the process of applying for Social Security:
One therapist told me, “I don’t think I have ever seen anyone get approved right away on the first try. It usually takes two or three times before someone gets approved.” A psychiatrist even recommended that I seek legal counsel. “These people making these decisions aren’t even doctors,” she stated in efforts to assure me I wasn’t the only one that had ever faced this problem. “I see it every day! Patients like you having to apply two, three times, get an attorney and finally get approved.” What about the people who can’t find an attorney? What about the people who just end their lives because they feel there is no other option?
To date, there are no national laws to protect the mental health and well-being of its citizens. More importantly, there is very little that protects the mental health of our workforce, students, children and future leaders of tomorrow. How can any physical or tangible results be had without first looking to how our environments shape the world around us on a psychiatric level? As mass shootings, acts of violence and suicides continue to soar what is being done to prevent these heinous acts from reoccurring? I believer stricter gun laws alone are not the solution. Imprisonment, prosecution, locked wards and psych facilities also do very little if anything to deter potentially fatal outcomes.
Prevention begins with acknowledging what is the root cause. Nothing has been done to grant the support and resources citizens need to maintain mental health awareness and preservation. State laws have done very little in making a significant difference within the mental health community. Something needs to be done at the federal level across the U.S., as the preamble of the Constitution states:
“…in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
It is this nation’s responsibility to care for the needs of the people, protect and uphold our constitutional rights, our civil rights, as well as our unalienable rights. Although in section one of the fourteenth amendment the language changes from “the pursuit of Happiness” to “life, liberty or property,” the whole premise of the Constitution was based off of the Declaration’s stand that our government’s main charge is to secure our “Safety and Happiness.” It should be a crime to use psychological warfare, inflicting intentional emotional distress, as well as bullying both in the school systems and in the workplace.
Many California schools have already adopted anti-bullying laws, as well as additional supportive accommodations in high level education. According to the New York Times, “Studies show that hiring additional therapist helps keep students healthy and enrolled, which can be a good return on investment for an institution.” As someone who personally battles mental health issues and attends college, I cannot thank the staff, the educators, the councilors, disabled student services and my supportive college community enough.
School gives me a sense of purpose and something I look forward to on a day to day basis. However, my illnesses do not always permit me to function in a “normal” classroom setting like everyone else, which in itself causes anxiety. Something I have come to learn is that creating a better, more comfortable environment to learn and work benefits not only myself but the entire classroom. Since admitting my disabilities to myself, and getting help from disabled student services, I have found a new safe place for me to learn, grow and share my talents with others.
In this modern everything-at-your-finger-tips society why is it so difficult to put something together? We can Facetime our friends and family from the security of our homes, but we can’t seek help without leaving our safe environments. What is preventing additional training across this internet surfing society? Instead of creating an app to virtually drink a beer on your phone screen, how about more apps like Calm and Headspace that teach mental health techniques. A how to interact with a bully app or a therapy app. Come on millennials, I know you want it. Apps for educators, business people, students that can all link to the same source for gaining knowledge, skills and training about mental health awareness.
We have the ability to reduce our debt and keep generating this benefit and fixing what we have negated to acknowledge since our forefathers wrote it into law. For too long we have ignored this most essential right in pursuit of personal gain. It is most eloquently stated in Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus:”
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Who do we turn to for protection from ourselves? When, if ever, will any of us truly “breathe free”?